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City Weekend

How Rotary International president Ian Riseley went from being a guest speaker to leading 1.2 million members

Club president visiting Hong Kong tells City Weekend about the group’s vision, his efforts to get members to embrace gender equality, and what the world needs to pay attention to

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 5:31pm

When chartered accountant Ian Riseley was invited by one of his clients to make a speech at a Rotary Club in 1977, he had no idea the event would change his life.

The Australian had never previously heard of the international service organisation, and wondered what it did. That day, he spoke about income tax, one of his areas of expertise, and the animated encounters he had with others there left a lasting impression.

So when a client called him up later to invite him to another meeting, he leapt at the opportunity.

“At first, I was motivated to join because of the networking opportunities,” Riseley, 71, admitted. But over time he came to understand its simple yet ambitious objective: to make a difference in the world.

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It was in 1978 when Riseley became a Rotarian, as members of the group are known, after discussing the matter with his wife, Juliet. Since then, the couple’s lives have focused extensively on the club, and it has given them many valuable friendships in return.

By any standard, Rotary International is a formidable presence in the world, now administering more than 35,500 clubs.

Riseley’s personal investment in the club has steadily grown as well, culminating in his election for the 2017-2018 year as the group’s president. In 40 years, he has gone from curious guest attendee to a leader of 1.2 million members worldwide, many of whom are business and professional leaders.

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In Hong Kong, the club boasts 86 years of history. It carries out its affairs in English and regularly organises meetings, seminars and banquets while addressing various social and economic topics. Whatever it tackles, the aim is to inspire and unite its members.

The local chapter also leads charity projects in the city, such as a tree planting drive on Lantau Island. International projects have included providing screening for cervical cancer for Mongolian women living in poor and hard-to-reach areas of the country.

During a recent Rotary International event in San Diego, California, Riseley spoke about how environmental degradation and climate change were posing serious threats to everyone.

This week, Riseley paid a visit to Hong Kong to attend a presentation of a humanitarian award. He spoke to City Weekend on a wide spectrum of issues: his leadership role in the club, its vision, his efforts to get members to embrace gender equality, his achievements, and what the world needs to pay attention to right now.

What does it mean to be a Rotarian?

As a global organisation, our vision is that together we see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change – across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves. We are committed to high ethical standards, and all Rotarians subscribe to our four-way test of the things we think, say and do. Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

It makes us better people if we contribute our time and resources to help others
Ian Riseley, Rotary International

I joined my Rotary club when it was first started, in 1978. I was motivated to join because of the networking opportunities, but soon came to realise that Rotary clubs can make a difference in our local communities and beyond. The more time I have spent as a Rotarian, the more I have seen the amazing work carried out by our clubs around the world.

By helping others, we make the world a better place for all. This is especially true in the area of peace and conflict prevention and resolution, which is one of our six areas of focus. Also, it makes us better people if we contribute our time and resources to help others.

What was your most memorable project?

When the Australian government brought children from Chernobyl to Australia to spend time in fresh air and sunshine after the nuclear disaster there in 1986, my club volunteered to host a group for a few days. As they enjoyed the playground my club had built on the foreshore opposite our club meeting place, it occurred to me that, while I could not have done anything significant for those children as an individual, when I join my fellow club members and Rotarians from around the world, we can truly make a difference.

What is the biggest issue that requires help at the moment?

Polio eradication. When Rotary commenced our polio eradication programme in 1985, after a successful project in the Philippines in 1979, there were 350,000 cases each year, in scores of countries. Now, after billions of dollars and huge efforts from Rotary and our partners, we are on the brink of eradication, with just 22 cases in 2017. We must, and will, keep up this effort until eradication is achieved.

What was your first-ever hands-on project, and how did you feel about it?

My club built a shelter for commuters waiting for a bus in Sandringham [a suburb of Melbourne, Australia]. It was particularly important for the senior citizens in our community, and all members were involved in the project. That was almost 40 years ago, and the shelter is still there today. It makes me proud every time I pass it!

What do you have to say to the younger generation?

I have great respect for the younger generation, and believe that they are incorrectly seen as not being willing to serve others. They are certainly very dedicated to making the world a better place, and are committed to areas such as environmental sustainability. What they will not do is waste their time on useless meetings and discussions; they demand action! Rotary must get the message out that we are people of action, and we can serve our communities together. Rotary also has many programmes that benefit younger people, such as Youth Exchange, Rotaract and many more.

What have been the major challenges you have faced?

I have been a Rotarian for just about 40 years, which is a very long time to be involved with any organisation. While there have been some modest setbacks along the way, I am pleased to say that the positives massively outweigh any negatives.

The most significant challenge I faced within Rotary was the debate regarding the admission of women into Rotary membership, which was an issue on which I had very strong views. In the mid-1980s, Rotary’s council on legislation voted to deny clubs the capacity to admit women as members, and I took a leading role in Australia and internationally in agitating to have this position overturned. This was successful in 1989, but it was difficult to persuade many Rotarians of the appropriateness of this long overdue change.

How do you feel your leadership has affected the world, especially in Hong Kong and China.

Rotary is a very diverse organisation, with membership in almost every country. Our ultimate leadership body is a board of directors, which represents that global perspective. We are responsible for ensuring that we develop policies and programmes with that view. Hong Kong and China are represented in our decision-making through our regional structure and our local district leadership.


What is your favourite vacation spot?

I enjoy a relaxing beach holiday with snorkelling and surfing options, or a cross-country skiing vacation.

What do you do in your free time?

Playing golf, growing vegetables and fruit on our property, although there is not much free time these days.

Are you more of a dog or a cat person? Why?

I love all creatures but especially dogs, which are great companion animals and are always pleased to see you.

What was the last book you read?

Most of my reading is related to Rotary or magazines such as the Harvard Business Review, which I enjoy very much. The last book I read, last month, was From a Tin Shed to the United Nations, by Stephanie Wollard. I had the honour of writing the foreword to that book, which tells the story of Stephanie starting her charity called Seven Women in Nepal. Stephanie is an Australian Rotarian.

What will you miss most about Hong Kong?

I always enjoy the vibrant nature of Hong Kong, with a diverse and energetic population. I first visited Hong Kong in 1981 with my wife and two young children. It has changed a lot since then, but retains its vitality and charm.

What kind of vibe does the city give you?

The last time we were in Hong Kong we stayed at a golf club in Fanling. The train from Tsim Sha Tsui to Fanling was so clean, functional and efficient that it made me wonder why most of the world can’t manage a similar mass transport system. That is the energetic and efficient vibe I find in Hong Kong, while it retains a touch of the exotic.